In 2013, Peter Hove Olesen, a staff photographer at the Danish newspaper Politiken, spent eight days photographing in Pyongyang, North Korea, following a Danish theater troupe on a cultural exchange program. The pictures he brought back show little sign of the country’s long famine and continuing food shortages or the city’s nightly blackouts—instead they hint at the nearly total control the Dear Leader’s government had over what Olesen could see and photograph. The people and places in his photographs seem frozen in time, a collection of well-worn surfaces and performances that leave real life mostly to the imagination but reveal something about the weary nature of the government’s artifice. A show of his images opens February 23 at The Half King in New York.
Olesen caught whatever unguarded moments he could – there are subway riders and a bookshop reader and a girl warming up on her accordion. All seem lost in thought, suggesting a place where it’s safer to stay quietly withdrawn. He writes, “It is almost impossible to talk to North Korean people. First, almost no one speaks English, and second, the few times we talk to ordinary people it is clear that they are affected by the guides’ presence. ‘Only the happy Koreans,’ our guide reminds me several times, when I photograph.” One of the few surreptitious photos Olesen made shows a group of soldiers at a bus stop, taken with a small camera on one of a handful of walks he was allowed to take. The soldiers seem relaxed – a few smile and playfully grab each other. Behind them is a wide boulevard and uniform looking buildings, but we are left to guess at the nature of street life in the capital. Writes Anna Van Lenten, the curator of The Half King Photo Series, North Koreans “have had to learn to appreciate the dark, trust no one, doctor themselves, and somehow form families, laugh, and enjoy propaganda movies. Peter’s pictures are metaphors for what underpins their lives: paranoia, repression, repetition, and obedience to show. Yet, as frozen in place as this society appears, it’s susceptible to collapse in a flash.”